Investigation claims most mobile VPN apps are run by dodgy companies

An investigation by Top10VPN.com has concluded more than half of the most popular VPN apps are run by ‘secretive companies with Chinese ownership’.

The whole point of VPN apps is to protect your mobile online behaviour from third party snooping. Chinese companies, however, are regularly accused of collaborating with the Chinese state in order to facilitate espionage activities. While there is limited concrete proof of this kind of activity, VPN users are entitled to know who it is that’s claiming to protect their privacy, and this investigation alleges that is being deliberately concealed.

“What consumers tend to forget is that in order for VPNs to protect their online privacy, all their internet traffic must pass through their VPN provider’s servers and can be potentially logged and shared with third parties,” said Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com

“Leading VPN providers have detailed privacy policies that preclude them from monitoring this traffic. Yet many of the most popular free VPN apps for smartphones have nothing of the sort in their policies – meaning that there’s a really disconcerting ambiguity about what is happening to this data.

“To add to this is the fact that so many of these VPNs have Chinese ownership – and some are even based in the country’s flagship technology parks. It’s been widely reported that China has really clamped down on local VPN providers in recent months which raises questions about why these companies – which have such large international user bases – have been allowed to continue operating.”

Migliano is especially appalled at the lack gatekeeping and quality control from Google and Apple in this case. We were genuinely shocked that listings for these apps contained false information and links to such substandard resources that it’s clear there can be but minimal oversight of these apps,” he said. “This is a dereliction of duty from Apple and Google, whose lax controls are potentially leaving their customers open to wholesale data harvesting.”

Top10VPN.com presumably make money by people using its service to switch VPN apps, so it has a clear vested interest in urging people to do just that, but that doesn’t mean it’s findings aren’t significant. At the same time just because an app is Chinese that doesn’t mean it’s dodgy and the substantive issue here is about transparency and quality control in general. It makes you wonder how many other mobile apps are something other than they appear to be.

Nokia launches some actual applications for SDN

All the hype surrounding software-defined networking is finally starting to yield some tangible results in the form of three apps from Nokia.

Deciding to kill two buzzwords with one stone, Nokia is claiming its new WaveSuite open applications will jump-start optical network digital transformation. It consists of three apps: Service Enablement, Node Automation and Network Insight. The point of these apps is apparently to offer businesses a new degree of access to networks that is expected to yield novel commercial opportunities.

To help us get our heads around this new piece of networking arcana we spoke to Kyle Hollasch, Director of Marketing for Optical Networking at Nokia. He was most keen to focus on the service enablement app, which he said is “the first software that tackles the issue of resell hierarchy.”

Specifically we’re talking about the reselling of fixed line capacity. This app is designed to massively speed up the capacity reselling process, with the aim of turning it into a billable service. The slide below visualises the concept, in which we have the actual network owner at the base and then several levels of capacity reselling, allowing greater degrees of specialisation and use-case specific solutions.

Nokia WaveSuite slide 1

The node automation app allows network nodes to be controlled via an app on a smartphone, thanks to the magic of SDN. In fact this would appear to be the epitome of SDN as it’s only made possible by that technology. The slide below shows how is it is, at least in theory, possible to interact with a network element via a smartphone, which also opens up the ability to use other smartphone tools such as the GPS and camera.

Nokia WaveSuite slide 2

The network insight app seems to do what is says on the tin, so there doesn’t seem to be the need for further explanation at this stage. “These innovations are the result of years of working closely with our customers to address all aspects of optical networking with open applications enhancing not just operations, but opening up new services and business models,” said Sam Bucci, Head of Optical Networks for Nokia.

As a milestone in the process of virtualizing networks and all the great stuff that’s supposed to come with that, the launch of actual SDN apps seems significant. Whether or not the market agrees and makes tangible business use of these is another matter, however, and only time will tell if good PowerPoint translates into business reality.

New Euro Android charges could be $40 per device

Google announced earlier this week that it was going to start charging Android smartphone makers for its apps but didn’t say how much.

Tech site The Verge, however, reckons it has got hold of some documents that detail the tariffs Google intends to impose on its blameless OEM partners to make sure it doesn’t lose a single euro of profit while it wrestles with the European Commission’s trust busters. According to this ‘confidential fee schedule’ Google could demand as much as $40 per device, it’s alleged.

But these monetary considerations could just end up being bargaining chips in a process through which Google forgoes the cash so long as OEMs play ball by preinstalling all the stuff it wants. In other words Google seems to be saying “We won’t insist our stuff is bundled with Android but we will fine anyone who doesn’t.”

In that context the actual amounts involved seem irrelevant, since Google may well write them off in exchange for docile compliance, but we’ve only done three paragraphs so we might as well have a look at how they will be calculated. Essentially OEMs will have to pay more for larger screens and for exporting to richer countries. So a top-end device into the UK could be stung for $40, while a rubbish phone into Greece might only cost an extra couple of bucks.

Google seems to be somewhat sulkily throwing down the gauntlet to the EC by saying “OK, two can play at that game – if you won’t let us bundle then we’ll punish OEMs. How do you like them apples?” The EC will presumably have a bit of a think about whether this new tactic still represents an abuse of Google’s market dominance and then act accordingly.

Google ups the ante with Europe by charging Android manufacturers for its mobile products

Under pressure to be seen to comply with an EU antitrust ruling, Google has indicated that the only way to do so is to start charging for what was previously given away.

Earlier this year Europe fined Google €4.3 billion for abusing its dominance in the smartphone OS market to force the bundling of its commercial products such as search onto every Android phone. The EC found this practice to be anticompetitive since it made it harder for any other apps to compete and this reduced consumer choice.

Accompanying its inevitable decision to appeal the fine, Google CEO Sundar Pichai insisted that the existence of Android has in fact led to more consumer choice, not less – an assertion proven by all the great Android devices you can buy. Regardless Google was given 90 days to comply with the ruling or face further fines, and we now know the nature of that compliance.

In a blog post Google VP of Platforms and Ecosystems Hiroshi Lockheimer detailed the concessions Google will be making in Europe while the appeals process is underway. In essence Google will now start charging any Android device OEM that ships into the EU for the use of its mobile apps. Furthermore it will charge separately for search and Chrome, since they’re the apps that seemed to upset the EC and, as a consequence, OEMs are free to muck about with Android itself if they want.

The justification given for this move is simple: Google needs to make up for the revenue it will lose by not being able to bundle its mobile apps with Android. “Since the pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android, we will introduce a new paid licensing agreement for smartphones and tablets shipped into the EEA. Android will remain free and open source,” said the blog.

An underlying strategy, however, may be to illustrate Google’s point about all the benefits consumers have derived from Android. By charging what it previously gave away for ‘free’ (while making loads of money via the traffic through its mobile apps, of course), Google is saying that the consequence of the EU’s ruling will be for everything to become more expensive.

This is ultimately a fight over Google’s underlying business model of given stuff away and then monetising its users. But the EC does have a point the use of a dominant position to stifle competition via forced bundling and, as the former head of Internet Explorer and Windows at Microsoft notes in the tweet below, has a strong tradition of challenging this sort of thing.

One final thing to consider against Google’s claim that, if it can’t insist all its other stuff comes bundled with Android, it has to seek direct compensation is the matter of China. Google apps have been unbundled from Android there for some time and Google doesn’t seem to be getting any compensation there. If it can do that in China, why can’t it do it elsewhere?

YouTube mobile app now tells you how much of your life you’re spending on it

Google seems to be concerned about pathological use of its YouTube video platform to it has made some new tools to help manage addiction.

The wonderfully euphemistic premise for this move is the neologism ‘digital wellbeing’. Since we don’t actually exist digitally this can only refer to the health (largely mental but in extreme cases possibly physical too) implications of spending too much time online. “Our goal is to provide a better understanding of time spent on YouTube, so you can make informed decisions about how you want YouTube to best fit into your life,” says the blog post announcing these new tools.

Firstly you can now easily see how much time you’ve spent watching YouTube via your account page. ‘Time watched’ is now prominently displayed when you navigate you your account page via the mobile app (although not via the desktop route) and prodding that reveals stats on you much time you’ve spent watching YouTube vids, including your daily average for the past week. We imagine this could present a pretty brutal wake-up call for some people.

On that note, within the same set of tools is the ability to aggregate all your YouTube notifications (reminders that someone you follow has uploaded new material) into a daily digest, rather than be constantly be bombarded by enticements to watch another vid. There’s even the capacity to set yourself a cap on the amount of time you spend on YouTube, which will allow the app to act as your conscience and urge you to expand your horizons once that time threshold is reached. You can even disable notifications to allow you to get some rest before the next binge.

“We’re dedicated to making sure that you have the information you need to better understand how you use YouTube and develop your own sense of digital wellbeing,” concludes the blog, written by Brian Marquardt, Director of Product Management, who felt the need to tell us he recently watched a YouTube clip of James Corden hanging out with The Backstreet Boys.

Google makes money every time someone watches a YouTube video it serves ads onto, so why would it be trying to help people spending less time doing so? The likely answer is that some people find it so addictive they’ve taken to abandoning the platform entirely in order to do other things like leaving the house and talking to people in real life. Google presumably wants to help them maintain their addictions at levels just short of pathological, to maximise YouTube traffic.

Youtube mobile tools 1

Youtube mobile tools 2

Youtube mobile tools 3

Watershed moment: should mobile operators be worried we talk less?

A new report from Ofcom claims users in the UK spoke 2.5 billion minutes less on their mobile phones, down by 1.7% in 2017, the first such decline in history.

This followed the trend total talking time by the UK population has been declining over several years, primarily mainly driven by the sharp drop in minutes spent on fixed line phones. The combined talking time also suffered the sharpest drop in years, at more than 6%. See the chart from Ofcom’s The Communications Market 2018 report (p.17) below.Ofcom report call minutes decline

In some ways mobile operators should be concerned. After OTT messaging services (WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat, etc.) destroyed the text message cash cow, it looks they are also losing another revenue stream, the voice call.

However it does not necessarily mean we speak less. Some simply move the calls into other apps, especially when we need to speak to people overseas, more than one people at the same time, or when we like to combine video with audio. Group video call features from WhatsApp or Skype and others come handy.

Operators’ response is not too dissimilar to the one when they tried to fend off the OTT messaging services. After throwing in unlimited number of text messages to typical packages, they now often throw in unlimited minutes. However this does not look to have reverted the trend of fewer minutes spent on voice calls, just like the unlimited text message offers have not reverted the decline in SMS and MMS (p.20).

Ofcom report SMS decline

The experience of messaging apps may be superior when handling rich features, but it needs internet connection, and it consumes data, which is exactly what operators are working hard to monetise. Some choose to offer bigger data buckets at a higher price, while others bundled with value-added services, for example video streaming. The result shows people do pick up higher packages. The total mobile retail revenues dropped by 1.3% from 2016, but revenues from mobile packages grew by nearly 3%, while revenues from out-of-bundle data near held. The biggest drop occurred in out-of-bundle voice. It seems for most people the bundled voice was already more than enough.

Ofcom report revenue types

Deregulation in Finland: Uber Black may be back, but UberPOP is popped, again

Finland’s new Act on Transport Services has opened its taxi market to competition. 90 per cent of taxi rides in the future are expected to be booked on mobile apps, estimated the authorities.

To call Finland an expensive country to live in is a fair comment. To say hiring taxi in Finland is expensive is an understatement. The country had rigid restrictions on cab fare and high entry barriers which have fended off competition. Uber was banned from operating in 2017. Uber drivers’ earnings were confiscated, and its country manager’s assets were seized by Helsinki district court.

This all changed on Sunday 1 July, when the new Act on Transport Services came into effect. It did away with regulated fares, lifted the cap on the number of taxi licences to be issued, and loosened requirements on cab driver qualification. Trafi, the traffic safety agency told the media that its online platform received more than 700 applications for permits to operate taxi service on the first day the new law became effictive. The authorities are taking on additional staff to process the applications and permits will be granted within a day or two.

All this may spell good news for Uber. Drivers holding a permit will be able to take business on the Uber app, providing the so-called Uber Black service. However, because the law specifically requires drivers to apply for permit, UberPOP, which enables unlicensed drivers to provide rides, and has been at the heart of Uber’s legal issues with authorities in different parts of the world, will continue to be banned.

The direct beneficiaries of the new law are the customers, who will have more choices and will likely enjoy more competitive fares. But the deregulated market also opens a new business opportunity for the technology industry. There are more than a dozen taxi hiring apps in Finland now, including Uber, and more are expected to be launched. This is not sustainable. It would not be too much of a stretch to see aggregation and price comparison apps coming to the market. They will be the customer facing front end, and can take a cut from every ride booked on the platform, similar to what Skyscanner does for air travel and Booking.com does for hotels.

Facebook takes fight to YouTube on mobile with IGTV

Facebook subsidiary Instagram has launched a new app dedicated to long-form video on mobile devices that seems designed to compete with dominant incumbent YouTube.

If you want to publish video longer than a few minutes on the internet right now (outside of China) YouTube is by far the best place to get traffic and maybe even monetise your efforts. There are alternative specialist services, such as Vimeo, but they’re much smaller, and other social media platforms tend to be used for mini clips.

Instagram has traditionally been all about photos and while some producers, such as comedian Kyle Dunnigan, have adapted their video content to it, to date Instagram and Facebook have left the longer video market to their great competitor Google.

Not any more it seems. IGTV is a dedicated service within Instagram as well as a standalone app that increases the maximum length of uploaded videos from one minute to one hour. Additionally it displays the video in portrait (or vertical, as Instagram puts it), full-screen, while YouTube requires you to view full-screen video in landscape, thus needing to rotate your phone by 90 degrees. Oh, the first-world problems we have to endure.

“IGTV is different in a few ways,” said Kevin Systrom, Co-Founder & CEO of Instagram, in a blog that rather embarrassingly seems to feature a broken link to a video. “First, it’s built for how you actually use your phone, so videos are full screen and vertical. Also, unlike on Instagram, videos aren’t limited to one minute. Instead, each video can be up to an hour long.”

IGTV screens

This launch seems designed to address several important issues for Facebook. It has been agonizing over user engagement and seems to want people to use the main Facebook platform for ‘engaging with each other’ somehow, instead of just monging out at cat video compilations, so it seems to be hoping to ring-fence the video stuff on Instagram. But even this strategy seems to be confused, as we saw with the recent announcement of a tool apparently designed to limit the time spend on Instagram.

The bigger play seems to be to take on YouTube as the place for user-generated content. YouTube has been spending most of this year trying to alienate many of its producers by refusing to serve ads against their content, thus depriving them of the main means of being paid for their work. The market is desperate for a viable alternative and this could be it, so we imagine YouTube execs will be watching this situation very closely.

Having said that they don’t need to panic just yet, because right now there’s no way of directly monetising videos on IGTV. As reported by Variety, Systrom said he wants to build ‘engagement’ first but tentatively conceded that monetising is “obviously a very reasonable place to end up.”

If and when that does happen Facebook has the opportunity to steal a lot of video business from Google, but only if it does a better job of looking after its producers than YouTube has. Advertisers are very sensitive about having their brand positioned next to the ‘wrong’ kind of content, but accurately identifying that content is tricky. YouTube id currently erring on the side of caution, leading to innocuous videos being demonetised. If even Google can’t get that algorithm right, what hope does Facebook have?

Europe ponders whether Apple Shazam buy is too much like iSpy

The European Commission has launched an investigation into Apple’s acquisition of Shazam over fears the iLeader might be able to spy on competitors.

As the second largest music streaming service in Europe, the European Commission fears acquiring the popular music recognition app Shazam would offer Apple the opportunity to obtain commercially sensitive data about customers of its competitors. By accessing this information, the iChief might be able to directly target its competitors’ customers and encourage them to switch to Apple Music. Such access to user data would be very poorly received by the competition-sensitive regulators.

“The way people listen to music has changed significantly in recent years, with more and more Europeans using music streaming services,” said Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. “Our investigation aims to ensure that music fans will continue to enjoy attractive music streaming offers and won’t face less choice as a result of this proposed merger.”

The acquisition of the London-based music and image recognition service was confirmed back in December, with Apple trying to build on a successful couple of months in the music business. The price of the acquisition has not been released to date, though it has been rumoured to be in the region of $400 million. To date, the app has been downloaded more than a billion times.

One area which might be of concern for the busybody bureaucrats is how Shazam has continued to link its services to other organizations. Once a consumer uses the app to recognise a song, the app then links to other websites to download and purchase various bits of content. One aspect of the investigation would aim to understand whether discontinuing this referral system would damage the commercial capabilities of competitors, or give Apple an unfair advantage.

We’ll answer this question for the lethargic legislators; it would. Took us ten seconds to mull over the question, whereas the pointless public servants would consider the question for months, while expensing chocolate covered waffles, and clock-watching from lunch-time.

In light of the referral scheme and also access to commercially sensitive data of competitor customers, you have to wonder whether this acquisition has the legs to get it through a competition investigation.